Why politicians of both parties may rue the awakening of North Carolina’s progressive movement
There is a bit of mythology percolating through the mainstream news media these days that the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement led by Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP is somehow acting as stalking horse for the state Democratic Party and Democratic politicians. Associated Press reporter Katelyn Ferral even “reported” as much in a “news” story this week that several media outlets ran under the headline “NC’s protests are Democratic tool in election year .” This is from the story:
“The weekly protesters at the North Carolina legislature call their charge against Republican policies a moral imperative. But it is a moral imperative replete with a Democratic agenda in an election year.
The “Moral Monday” movement has become a de-facto campaign tool for Democrats to publicize their platform and recruit volunteers to help them win elections. In a year where North Carolina’s heated U.S. Senate race can decide the direction of the upper chamber, results will hinge on the movement’s ability to translate the voices to votes come November.”
Ferral’s conclusion is, of course, plainly and utterly off-base.
While it’s obviously true, as a general matter, that modern Democratic politicians tend to have more in common with the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement and that some Democratic politicians have endorsed it (or some of it), the notion that Barber or most members of his movement give two hoots about which party implements the agenda they have been advancing is absurdly simplistic and bespeaks a remarkably shallow grasp of both recent and more distant history.
As Barber himself made plain in his comments to more than 400 people crowded under a steamy tent out back of the Legislative Building yesterday afternoon, the values espoused by MM/FT movement can be traced directly to politicians and other leaders of various political parties. In an informal talk in which he quoted multiple 19th Century “Lincoln Republicans” as well as Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and even Ronald Reagan, the NAACP president went out of his way to emphasize the fact that the modern progressive undertaking he leads is expressly nonpartisan.
A brief history lesson
One doesn’t have to be a student of post-Civil War Reconstruction to understand the accuracy and wisdom of Barber’s approach. While it’s true that the late 19th Century Fusion Movement of freed African-Americans and progressive whites that Barber often holds up as a model  included many Republicans and battled many racist Democrats, the inaccuracy and fluidity of partisan labels is also readily evident in more recent times. This truth was made plain to the crowd at yesterday’s event by a series of speakers who followed Barber to the podium to document the horrendous toll taken by the actions of the 2013 General Assembly .
As the speakers made clear, North Carolina and its people would be dramatically better off if legislative leaders and Governor McCrory heeded Barber’s call to “repent, repeal and restore.” Mere reversal of last year’s terrible laundry list of regressive legislation and a return to the status quo ante would, for instance:
Lead to affordable health insurance for a half-million people and save as many as 2,800 lives a year;
Add at least $525 million to the state budget in 2014-15 (a sum that would, for example, allow the state to rehire 4,500 fired teacher assistants, give all teachers a fully-funded, across-the-board 2% raise, maintain all teacher salary supplements, preserve the “Teaching Fellows” program, and replenish the state’s depleted textbook supply);
Put $108 million annually directly into the pockets of low-income working families through the restoration of the state Earned Income Tax Credit;
Shrink class sizes, end the disastrously test-happy “Read to Achieve” requirements for third graders and remove $11 million from an unaccountable and unconstitutional school voucher scheme;
Put tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of deserving unemployed families; and
Reverse dozens of other destructive new laws affecting the environment, consumer rights, higher education, criminal justice, women’s rights and democracy itself.
As several speakers also made patently clear however, the notion that the North Carolina of 2012 (or 2010) – i.e. the state that was run by Democrats for so long — was some kind of progressive paradise is ridiculous.
The truth of the matter is that many of the advances won by progressives in the years prior to the rise of the current conservative leadership were, quite frequently, half measures that Democratic leaders had to be dragged kicking and screaming to enact.
Whether it was the enactment of the Racial Justice Act, publicly-financed elections, the Earned Income Tax Credit or any number of other important progressive (or semi-progressive) policies, North Carolina Democratic political leaders were never a uniformly forward-looking group. Indeed, there was many a time in which conservative, pro-corporate Democrats allied themselves with conservative Republicans to aggressively resist progressive change. Even today, there is more than one Democratic legislator who has gone along with some or all of the current hard-right legislative agenda.
As observers like Katelyn Ferral would do well to learn, the movement launched by Rev. Barber and his allies under the Historic Thousands on Jones Street banner first commenced in earnest in 2007  – a time in which Democrats controlled almost all of the important levers of state government. And while the movement may be getting more publicity today, its ultimate objectives haven’t changed.
Repeal is far from enough
And so it is that conservative politicians of all political parties have reason to be concerned about the rapid rise of the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement. As even a cursory glance makes plain, there’s only one mass political movement in North Carolina today that actually resembles the fast-changing and ever-more-diverse population of the state as a whole.
And when that movement reaches its full potential in the years (and decades) to come, its policy objectives surely won’t be confined to mere repeal of what took place in 2013. Rather, a truly progressive, diverse, modern, 21st Century movement will be about the business of implementing a truly progressive, diverse, modern, 21st Century policy agenda – one that includes genuinely universal health care, truly free and generously-funded public and higher education, a wholly progressive tax system, environmental protection laws that actually roll back the damage humans have inflicted on their planet home, the aggressive eradication of the vestiges of racism and homophobia and dozens of other important advances.
In other words, the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement is no tool of the Democratic Party. And while the last few years have represented a walk in the wilderness for progressives, there can be little doubt that the recent hard times will ultimately leave them stronger and better-positioned to help chart a new course for North Carolina in the not-so-distant future. Both Republicans and Democrats will resist this effort at their own political risk.